On any given day, drivers and pedestrians in New York City may encounter a wild group of motorcyclists popping wheelies as they tear through the streets of the Big Apple. The police are losing patience, and some citizens lodge complaints, but the movement can’t be stopped — who are the people behind the helmets, and what keeps them coming back to the streets for their notorious daily rides?
This was the question we wanted to answer when we started our latest documentary, Wheels Up In NYC. As a New York production company full of avid motorcyclists, we’d always been intrigued by these lawless one-wheeled renegades. By sitting down with a few members of the New York stunt-riding community, we were able to dig into the raw, human stories behind why these bikers ride and what it means to them.
“I don’t have therapy in my life that I can spend money on and talk to someone,” says one rider who goes by the name of X. “Motorcycling and stunt riding were the only way I could focus that madness, the only calm that told me to shut up and focus.”
Officially, the movement is known as Bike Life. Independently or in groups, riders pop wheelies and perform other stunts on dirt bikes, motorized bikes, and even ATVs. Some do it for the thrill, some for the friendships, and some riders are even starting to do it for money — by documenting their stunts on social media, skilled stunt riders can score lucrative sponsorships and brand partnerships.
Most of these bikers practice their stunts in vacant lots where they can hone their craft in peace, but the streets are where they put their moves to the test. However, this can lead to accidents, injuries, and even trouble with the law — some stunt riders get ticketed for blowing red lights, and many are pulled over for reckless or negligent driving. Despite the police pushback, the people we interviewed insisted that most stunt riders follow traffic laws, wear the appropriate safety gear, and do their best to minimize any disruption or inconvenience for other people on the road.
Lately, avid stunt riders can take police and traffic out of the equation entirely with BikeLifeSports, a stunt-riding event where bikers can practice their craft in the safety of a private racetrack. “We don’t have to worry about being chased by cops, we don’t have to worry about other people hitting us,” said one rider. “It’s just safety.” Without the constant looming threat of law enforcement or traffic collisions, riders can focus on what matters most: their stunts and their community.
No matter who we talked to, one through line of all our interviews was the support and camaraderie that brought these riders together. For many of these bikers, stunt riding introduced them to lifelong friends, partners, and a greater community of like-minded people who have their back through the highest highs and lowest lows. Combine that with a one-of-a-kind adrenaline rush, and it’s no wonder these bikers risk it all day after day to take to the streets on one wheel.
- pictures by JP Kathoefer